THE RIVER: A PLACE OF REMINISCENCE
I thought of Rodney on Sunday morning while fishing the Yellowstone River.
I think of Rodney on many spring mornings while preparing for a river trip.
You see, Rodney lived for those first spring mornings when the cutthroat trout rose to slurp bugs off the surface of north Idaho’s St. Joe River.
Rodney Wolfe lived and worked along the Joe, the river where he spent his life casting dry flies and finger wagging the very thought of insulting a trout with a nymph or, God forbid, a streamer.
I remember the first time I spoke to Rodney, back in 2001 when I was writing about fly-fishing and spending my afternoons and weekends learning the Joe.
I called Rodney for a St. Joe River fishing report to be published in the local newspaper. It was a spring morning and Rodney was eager to talk about effective flies for the early fishing season.
He mentioned all the usual dry flies that could be used to work the banks of the swollen river and pick up fish.
And that was the end of his report.
I proceeded to inquire about which hot nymphs and streamers he would recommend.
I mean, if the fish aren’t rising, they must be eating below the surface, right?
There was a long pause and in the corner of my eye I could see my editor, Ralph, leaning far back in his chair with a playfully frightened look on his face.
I had obviously crossed some invisible line, albeit unintentionally.
Rodney finally spoke, asking if I had ever slept with another man’s wife. I was taken aback and very confused.
“Slept with another man’s wife? No, sir, of course not,” I replied.
Rodney — a man of local legend, the creator of the Big Bad Wolfe and the St. Joe Hopper, the legendary fly fisherman of the Joe, the fly-tying extraordinaire — explained that only an adulterer would stoop to using nymphs or throw “rags” to cutthroat trout.
No man with integrity sleeps with another man’s wife or fishes a fly that sinks beneath the surface of the river, he retorted.
Rodney continued to explain his reasoning and I listened intently.
I didn’t fish a nymph for several years after this conversation, partly for fear that I might run into Rodney on the Joe while fishing a San Juan worm or some other subaquatic imitation. Some men feared the game warden; I feared an encounter with Rodney Wolfe, who would have wanted to inspect the flies I tied for the day’s fishing.
The dry-fly purist once approached me and Ralph, also my fishing buddy, at Bud’s Burgers in St. Maries. A circular table sits at the center of the room where the local coffee klatch gathers around to talk local, state and national politics and all issues related to the timber industry.
The restaurant fell silent as Rodney approached and in a booming voice said the word around the small logging town was that someone saw us fishing with worms up the Joe.
Rodney howled with laughter and the old-timers all smiled and chuckled at Rodney’s joke.
I knew that this meant old Rodney accepted us. Otherwise he would have simply ignored us, passing without offering the customary courtesy wave on the river road.
Before Rodney died in 2010 at 86, his legs were weak and he took to sitting in the river in a lawn chair, casting dry flies to cutthroat trout.
Memories of Rodney were in my head Sunday while floating the Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, my first float of 2017.
It’s those chilly spring mornings when nothing’s rising and I’m rooting through nymph and streamer boxes that I think of Rodney.
Retired Rodney wouldn’t have fished at 8 a.m. on a March morning in Montana. He would have waited for the sun to rise high in the sky, with daytime highs in the 50s or 60s. Rodney would have waited for the right time to entice a trout to the surface with a caddis or purple haze.
In case you’re wondering, the Yellowstone River is slightly off colored but the fish are biting.
I caught a nice brown trout near Emigrant on a rubber legs stonefly nymph.
But don’t tell Rodney.